Canada’s first national internment operations took place during the First World War, between 1914 and 1920. More than 8,500 men, along with some women and children, were interned by the Canadian government, which acted under the authority of the War Measures Act. Most internees were recent immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, and mainly from the western Ukrainian regions of Galicia and Bukovyna. Some were Canadian-born or naturalized British subjects. They were held in 24 receiving stations and internment camps across the country — from Nanaimo, BC, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Many were used as labour in the country’s frontier wilderness. Personal wealth and property were confiscated and much of it was never returned.
Discrimination and Prejudice
Internment operations were shaped by pre-war prejudices, which were made worse during wartime. Between 1891 and the outbreak of the First World War, some 170,000 Ukrainian immigrants arrived in Canada, where they were promised free land. (See also Dominion Lands Act; History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies; Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Prairies.)
But the Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans herded into camps were not seen as White, as some label them today. Instead, they were seen as racialized “others.” They were subjected to racism from White society, which generally viewed them as dirty, indecent, inferior peasants who resembled “animals.” These prejudices were expressed openly, as newspaper articles as early as 1899 attest.
War Measures Act
During the First World War, thousands of people were imprisoned under the authority of the War Measures Act. ( See also Internment in Canada.) The Act was adopted by Parliament on 22 August 1914. It gave Cabinet sweeping powers to suspend civil liberties and govern by order-in-council. This meant it could make and impose laws without approval from the House of Commons or the Senate. Approximately 80,000 people had to register as “enemy aliens” and were compelled to report regularly to the police. Their freedom of speech, movement and association were also restricted.
The passage of the Wartime Elections Act in September 1917 took away the vote from those who came to Canada after March 1902. (See Right to Vote.) This undercut their ability to protest their mistreatment by voting against the government. (See also Union Government.) As the wives and daughters of men serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force were given the right to vote in 1917, thousands of “enemy aliens” had that same right taken away.
Internees were forced to work in the national parks of Western Canada. They were used to build roads, clear bush and cut trails. They even built a portion of the golf course at Banff National Park. Others helped carve experimental farms out of the boreal wilderness near Kapuskasing, Ontario, and Spirit Lake, Quebec.
Conditions were trying and the guards were sometimes brutal. Resentment at what many regarded as their unjust confinement was widespread. This provoked resistance, some of which was passive, such as work slowdowns. Other efforts were more determined. There were escape attempts and even a riot involving 1,200 internees at Kapuskasing in May 1916. Three hundred armed soldiers were needed to put it down.
In total, 107 internees died in captivity. Six were shot dead while trying to escape. Others died from infectious diseases, work-related injuries and suicide. In many cases, they were buried in unmarked graves or cemeteries far from their communities and loved ones.
Due to the war effort and the number of soldiers overseas, able-bodied men were needed on various labour projects and on farms across Canada. In 1916–17, many internees were paroled to perform these duties. They were paid a wage that was confiscated by the authorities, to whom they were required to report. However, the revolution in Russia and the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917 led to a Red Scare and more arrests. Many men were confined again, sometimes in prisons such as the Kingston Penitentiary.
Official Records and Personal Accounts
Few internees left personal accounts of what happened. Many were too ashamed or afraid to recount their experiences, even to family members or friends. Most of the official internment operation records were deliberately destroyed decades later. This further erased the episode in Canadian history, though not every trace.
DID YOU KNOW?
Many Ukrainians enlisted voluntarily in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The most famous was Corporal Filip Konowal. His valour at the Battle for Hill 70 in August 1917 was recognized with a Victoria Cross. Ukrainian Canadians fought alongside thousands of “Austrian” Ukrainians, who misrepresented who they were to enlist.
Campaign for Recognition and Symbolic Redress
Efforts to gain redress (acknowledgement and compensation) for Canada’s first national internment operations began in 1978. Internee Nick Sakaliuk gave testimony to historians about his experiences as an internee at Fort Henry in Kingston and then in the Petawawa and Kapuskasing camps. Almost a decade passed before a redress campaign began. It was led by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA). It followed the lead of another survivor, Montreal-born Mary Manko Haskett. She believed that any redress campaign should be “about memory, not money.” Haskett was six years old when she was exiled to the Spirit Lake camp. Her younger sister Nellie died there.
In January 1992, the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse produced a report. It estimated that the losses suffered by victims of Canada’s First World War internment operations could be valued between $21.6 and $32.5 million (1991 dollars). However, an official apology was never requested. Compensation to individual survivors or their descendants was never sought. Haskett believed that contemporary society should not bear direct responsibility for what happened decades earlier.
The UCCLA made concerted efforts to raise public awareness through initiatives such as the installation of historical markers and statues. A trilingual plaque was unveiled by a Spirit Lake camp survivor, Stefa Mielniczuk, at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, on 4 August 1994.
Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act
The redress effort was advanced by Conservative MP Inky Mark, whose family had to pay the Chinese head tax. In 2004, Mark submitted private member’s Bill C-331 “to recognize the injustice that was done to persons of Ukrainian descent and other Europeans who were interned at the time of the First World War.” It called for the federal government “to provide for public commemoration and for restitution which is to be devoted to education and the promotion of tolerance.” The Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act became law on 25 November 2005.
The Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund (CFWWIRF) was established in 2008. It manages commemorative and educational projects and represents all communities affected by the internment operations. Symbolically, the settlement was signed in Toronto’s Stanley Barracks, a “receiving station” for internees from 14 December 1914 to 2 October 1916.
Legacy and Significance
During the First World War, thousands of Eastern Europeans found themselves targeted for internment and other repressive measures because of where they had come from. The crippling legacy of what happened to them endured for decades. Reflecting on how the civil liberties of so many Canadians were denied on two subsequent occasions — during the Second World War and the 1970 October Crisis — a survivor, Mary Manko Haskett, said: “What was done to us was wrong. Because no one bothered to remember or learn about the wrong that was done to us it was done to others again, and yet again. Maybe there’s an even greater wrong in that.”